By Mark O’Brien
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
WASHINGTON, United States — New guidelines from the U.S. Homeland Security Department mean immigration agents can consider an undocumented immigrant’s same-sex relationship in deciding whether to pursue deportation.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a memo to Congressional members on Thursday that gay and lesbian partners in committed relationships are now considered family members when it comes to immigration policy. Under the Obama Administration’s “prosecutorial discretion” initiative unveiled last summer, agents have leeway in taking certain factors—such as family members—into account when deciding who should be deported.
“In an effort to make clear the definition of the phrase ‘family relationships,’ I have directed [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to disseminate written guidance to the field that the interpretation of the phrase ‘family relationships’ includes long-term, same-sex partners,” Napolitano wrote.
Supporters of the change called the new policy a turning point that shows the government intent is not to split families up through deportation.
“It will mark the very first time that lesbian and gay couples have been recognized within immigration policy for relief,” said Steve Ralls, a spokesperson Immigration Equality, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender immigrants.
Relationships would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and the move only grants a potential reprieve from deportation. It does not grant same-sex couples an automatic stay, nor does it let them file petitions for legal residency and citizenship, as it does for immigrants with opposite-sex couples.
“It’s not equal access to green cards, which is what we really need,” said Immigration Equality Executive Director Rachel Tiven. “But it’s certainly another building block.”
The change was prompted by requests from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan). They and other members of Congress said same-sex couples should not have their families needlessly torn apart.
There are an estimated 29,000 same-sex couples nationwide involving a U.S. citizen and an immigrant, according to The Williams Institute, a think-tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Opponents say the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage in the United States as between one man and one woman, should prohibit same-sex couples from applying for immigration benefits.
The Obama administration has stopped defending DOMA, but that has not stopped the issue from being played out in court. Newsday reported on Friday that a Long Island couple was among several who filed a lawsuit in April to have their immigration petitions recognized.
It was unclear Friday how DOMA might affect the new immigration policy.
For further information, please see:
The International Business Times — Same-Sex Relationships Can Help Undocumented Immigrants Avoid Deportation — 28 September 2012
Newsday — Deportation Cases to Consider Gay Couples — 28 September 2012
USA Today — Gay Couples Could Get Reprieve in Deportation Cases — 28 September 2012
The Washington Times — DHS Grants Gay Partners Discretion in Deportation Cases — 28 September 2012